In the earliest days of the Space Race, when scientists were shrugging off the lingering challenges of one war and staring down the barrel of another, US and Soviet experimentation turned to animal life for the first glimpses of what human space flight could look like—if it were possible at all.
In 1947, the US chose its first animal test subjects: fruit flies. The flight lasted just over three minutes, and the passengers returned to earth alive. Two years later, the same program began its attempts to launch monkeys. Though the flights were largely successful, the survival rates were not. In 1950, the US tested its third species, a mouse. The rocket did not return intact.
In 1951, the Soviets joined the beings-in-space race at full throttle, launching a pair of dogs who both survived. The following decade saw more dogs, monkeys, mice, and even frogs surpass the 100 km mark assigned as the boundary line of “space.” Perhaps most famous of the pre-human space travellers was Laika, a passenger on Sputnik 2, who became the first animal to orbit the planet. However, without the technology to return orbital spacecraft, Laika died high above the earth.
In 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space, completing and returning from the orbit that had killed Laika. The US followed up within a few months with the successful flight of Alan Shepard, though this flight was sub-orbital: it reached space, but did not complete an orbit. Human spaceflight was entirely within reach.
That same year, the French space agency, the Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES), was established. It was only the third national space agency in the world, and by the time it was formed that December, two men had already returned from the new frontier. Both NASA and the USSR continued to launch various animals amid continued testing for further manned flights: chimpanzees, guinea pigs, beetles, tortoises, and rats were added to the pantheon of off-earth species.
The rats appealed to France (perhaps Remy worked for CNES), and the first French rodent, Hector, saw space in 1961, before the agency was officially established. Hector survived. They tested a few more rats, then moved on to the natural next step.
The Centre d’Enseignement et de Recherches de Médecine Aéronautique (CERMA) obtained fourteen cats, and the first intensive feline spationaute training began.
The cats were all female for their presumed docility in the stressful endeavor of flying into space. (This logic was not applied to early human space flights, but I digress.) They were implanted with electrodes and gained experience with flight simulation tools like compression and high-G centrifuge chambers.
After two months of training, a black-and-white cat designated C 341 emerged as the best candidate for the flight. She was fitted with more electrodes, then strapped into the nose cone of the Véronique rocket. The ship launched from Algeria and spent less than a minute accelerating, during which C 341 experienced 9.5 g forces (one g is the force of gravity you feel right now). Then, for five minutes, 150 km above the planet, she was weightless.
Thirteen minutes after launch, C 341’s vessel was recovered. The kitty was a bit dishevelled—her heart rate slowed significantly while experiencing zero g—but alive. The media reaction to the successful flight was to name the cat Félix, after the silent film-era cartoon Felix the Cat. Though the cats in the program were intentionally not named prior to experimentation, CERMA adopted the feminine form, Félicette, as the cat’s official name.
Other space programs did not adopt the feline model, and Félicette’s legacy became murky. Two months after her flight, she was euthanized and her brain studied. (Most of her fellow trainees were adopted out after the program ended.) Decades later, various countries introduced stamps honoring Félicette, nearly all of them printed with her unofficial title, Félix. Just last year, more than half a century after her flight, an official statue of Félicette was unveiled at the International Space University near Strasbourg, France.
I don’t know how much pets figure into our grand visions of space colonization. Will cats find empty boxes to snuggle into around a Mars base, or will we leave them on earth? Was Félicette the first space cat of many, or will she remain the only feline to survive beyond earth’s bounds?